Nick Townsend: Two faces of England

All that glitters is not instant gold and Ashton's trust in youth has to wait for repayment
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The Independent Online

An afternoon, it could be said, when England's Peter Pans were outdone by Captain Hook. Oh, all right then, captain of his country may be premature for a 21-year-old who boasts only 11 caps. But who would dispute the assertion that the fly-half James Hook, compared readily with Barry John, already possesses the potential regularly to dominate games as comp-rehensively as he did here yesterday?

Eyes which had arrived to scrutinise Brian Ashton's young England contenders swiftly switched to the Osprey, who, from the moment he charged down his opposite number Toby Flood's attempted clearance and scored, set the tone. But then perhaps England needed this defeat, to quell any tendency for heady anticipation following that admirable victory over France a week ago.

After this defeat by Gareth Jenkins' team, desperate to conclude their campaign with some hope and honour, there will still be questions asked about England's travel sickness. Though there was absolutely no expectation of England amassing the points required to clamber over France and make an unlikely appearance at the Six Nations summit, they would not have expected this against a team languishing without a victory before yesterday.

But this game can too easily kid you into entering a fantasy land of false promise. Last week, England were nourished by the warm embrace of Twickenham and duly responded. Yesterday was decidedly different - they were offered nothing more welcoming than a cold shoulder in the principality.

In recent weeks, there have been two England extremes. The one which capitulated at Croke Park and the one which conquered France. Yesterday, there was something in between as a fitful England succumbed early on, emerged from adversity to draw level and then fell to Hook's acumen in a disappointing second half.

In the early minutes England appeared too easily intimidated by the occasion, by an opposition fired up by it. We awaited the response from Ashton's young aspirants, but it came only sporadically. The England coach referred in the build-up to their mindset being correct, as well as their skill set. Doubtlessly, there will be more to come from Flood, Shane Geraghty, David Strettle and Tom Rees, but together with Mathew Tait they rarely exhibited that prowess here.

Like Jonny Wilkinson's deputy, Flood, Tait is 21. This was his second Six Nations start. His first will be long remembered by those of us here two years ago. Gavin Henson turned him over and turned celebrity from that day. Shamefully, the then 18-year-old Tait was dropped - an act the former coach Andy Robinson admits he regrets - and not allowed to forget it.

Yesterday, the fresh-faced centre, who still only looks 15 although he has amassed over 50 Premiership appearances, was back. He rarely enjoyed the freedom to exploit the opportunity, but it would have represented a significant psychological moment for the Newcastle man. Henson is nowhere, except the tabloids. Even allowing for injury, he probably would not have played here.

This England is a work in progress. The clear-out has virtually ended, with Jason Robinson the only remnant of the world champions' starting line-up of 2003. He scored one first-half try. Significantly, Mike Catt also had something to say about things in Sydney, and it is testimony to his enduring ambition that he has been restored under the Ashton regime.

With Wales two tries to the good, it was the 35-year-old Catt who burst clear with a scintillating break from his own half and kicked ahead, although it was Harry Ellis who pounced to bring Ashton's men back into contention. Before half-time came a thrilling run from the wily Ellis, England's best player, and the invitation for Robinson to pounce was just too inviting for the Sale winger to ignore.

England's accumulation of points had scarcely been merited. One sensed the concern rippling through the Wales followers. But their team were in no mood to capitulate. It was a private battle against possible humiliation. It was a battle well won.

Incidentally, what was that about saving the best until last? One can only sympathise with Ireland, the eventual runners-up, who were left dry-lipped after vanquishing Italy and had to endure 80 minutes of TV viewing before they learnt their fate. That frantic finale to decide the title was still going in Paris as these teams were limbering up.

It is no way to conclude what has otherwise been a fascinating championship.

That probably won't trouble Wales, while England departed, dejected, but still contemplating a future that is rather more propitious than it was at the end of last year, when they appeared destined for Neverland.